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Learning About Our Approach: The importance of empathy and strong connections in early relationships

Submitted by Heather on Thu, 04/18/2013 - 11:26

One of the core pieces of knowledge in the child development field is that children learn best in the context of warm secure relationships. The foundation for this starts at home, with the warm and loving connection of parents and other primary caregivers. Children who feel safe, and are afforded the experience of caregivers who respond and connect about their concerns and challenges, are given the gift of confidence and security in exploring their worlds. Every child is different in the ways they interact with their social world. Children are afforded the best start in life with experiences of support, encouragement, and connection.

The Education Training Research Associate’s reviewed over 600 research studies and concluded that "Parent Child Connectedness is the 'super-protective factor' against negative outcomes in adolescence. Having a close, connected relationship with a caring adult, an adult who listens to the child’s feelings, is the single strongest indicator that an adolescent will reach adulthood without experiencing teen pregnancy or violence, without becoming addicted to drugs or tobacco, and without dropping out of high school. Fostering this kind of relationship with our own children takes us beyond emotional intelligence, into a space where the emotion we each experience is accepted, experienced and processed." This source is from an article regarding the importance of children's emotions from an online parenting organization called Hand-in-Hand Parenting.

Our primary efforts throughout a preschool day start with ensuring these supportive relationships exist between each child and teacher. This is a huge part of the foundation offered to children at Caterpillar Cottage, as a continuation of your support and love at home. We consistently observe the fruits of this in the children's confidence, engagement and connection to all the teachers and to each other. These classes are communities for these children, allowing them to feel they belong, and to know their importance to their teachers and to their community of friends.

In explaining our philosophy to parents and each other, we often use the terms connection and empathy. The definitions seem self-evident. But in the spirit of helping all of us understand the nuts and bolts of what we intend, let me give you a couple of examples.

Taking a moment to think of the teachers we loved best in our own youth helps us remember how so much of what is important is a positive, caring, invested and nurturing person.

A couple of the tools you might observe our teachers employ include reflection and warmth. We work to understand what each child's perspective is and help them to understand each other, creating a safe space where they can learn to negotiate, problem solve and care for their friends.  When a child cries out because another one took something they were using, we kneel or sit with both children. We use this time to talk to both children about how they are feeling, allow some space for each child to understand and hear each other, and we give them as much power as we can in finding a solution that works for both of them. Children respond well when given the opportunity to solve a problem. It is almost always true that when we gently ask a child to please give the item back and ask their friend first, they do so without pause. Remarkably, it is also often true that when the child asks if they can use it, the child that just had that same thing snatched from their hands, will immediately and happily hand it back to the child who wants to use it. They want to cooperate with each other, they just don't want their friends to take things away from them without asking first. If we think about our own response in a similar situation, even as adults we would have the same request. Children need to know that their needs and rights are important to the people in their community- this is something we work hard to achieve for each child here.

When most people hear the outcry of distress or conflict we immediately want to help, we feel the need to stop the distress. Sometimes this need can override the need of the children to be heard, and the need of the children to cry. When a child is upset, crying is an important physical and emotional mechanism. It releases stress and allows more space for self-regulation (the process we all go through internally to calm and center ourselves). When this happens here, we work to provide a nurturing and caring presence, a shoulder to cry on, and we reflect back what we see so that children feel understood. We do not tell children to stop crying as this does not support their emotional maturity and brain development.

These are just a couple of examples to help illuminate our practice more.